Every Little Step

Featured Image:  “Early morning riser,” © Vincent Mumar (own work), Sep 2011. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

“Sensations are not symptoms,” I tell myself as I place one blue-sneakered foot tentatively onto the concrete pavement. The words of my first psychiatrist return to me, though I can’t remember his precise phrasing. “How many times will you tell yourself you can’t do it before you do?

“Anxiety and fear do not provide solace for our pain but aggravate it, leading us to a kind of breakdown in courage and strength because it appears that our pain has no possible remedy.”

~ St. Francis de Sales

On this blog, though I recount forthrightly my struggles with depression and anxiety and I unabashedly discuss my recovery from binge eating disorder, there remain one or two subjects so steeped in self-judgment and shame that I continue to carefully avoid them. These issues are important parts of my identity, and I process them in-depth with my dietician, my therapist, and in my personal writing. Otherwise, I keep the stories to myself, with the persistent belief that, “There are some things that people just won’t understand.” The way that my mind processes thought through physiologic responses in my body is one of those topics that I eschew. It’s hard to describe the stress-induced symptoms that I can develop. They aren’t manifestations of an overactive imagination or an overwrought psyche, and I don’t suffer from what is commonly characterized (and stigmatized) as “psychosomatic” illness. Over-worked neurons send misdirecting signals into the muscles of my body, which contract irregularly, and – voila! – a knot in my shoulder or in my stomach, a rushed trip to the restroom, or a flare-up of an old tendinitis. Did you ever have a lump in your throat, tightness in your chest, or butterflies in your stomach when you were particularly anxious about something? In some people, that mind-body connection is a little over-developed. Different people may experience this process in a manner of ways, but for me, it is just that easy… and complicated.

My response to stress through these non-specific physical manifestations didn’t emerge out of nowhere. When I was in sixth grade, I was the target of some fairly serious bullying. (Those were the days before cell phones and social media. I can’t even fathom what children go through today.) By the end of the year, I was suffering from such frequent stomachaches and nausea that my pediatrician was convinced I was lactose intolerant. When all the tests returned with normal results, the symptoms eventually resolved. I was always a sensitive child and easily prone to worry. As I transitioned from elementary to middle school, the dysthymic depression that would persist for the next 20 years settled more concretely upon me.  I began to experience intermittent knee pains, which continued off and on throughout high school and college. I was diagnosed with patellofemoral syndrome, attributed to soccer and tennis. Before every tennis match, I lined up by the athletic trainer’s office so that he could tape my knees, but my ruminations about the sensation of pain only exacerbated and amplified the subjective experience. After college, I found my stride – literally and figuratively – becoming a short-distance runner and entering races. I completely forgot about my history of patellofemoral syndrome, and then I developed my first significant injury of adulthood. It was the fear more than the pain from the shin splints and possible stress fracture (I couldn’t afford the diagnostic test) that caused my depression and anxiety to spike. My thoughts lingered obsessively over my injury. In my fear and anticipation of pain, I could interpret almost any physical sensation in my legs as “hurt,” and my recovery extended beyond the expected six weeks into the range of six months. Eventually, when my bewildered doctor told me, “Either you are going to run, or you aren’t,” I screwed up my courage and forced one foot in front of the other. My mind reeled, but there wasn’t any inflammation in my extremities. When I forced my way through my dread and apprehension, both the emotions and their physical manifestations slowly melted away into… normalcy.

It wasn’t until nearly five years later, while I was recovering from my gastrointestinal illness and plantar fasciitis, that my therapist and I started addressing the role that my thought process was playing in my over-interpretation of physical stimuli. Anytime I noticed the slightest suggestion of a feeling in the area of my abdomen, I began to focus all of my attention on my stomach. As I over-analyzed every gurgle and squelch, I descended into self-blame, and my head swam with alarming and catastrophic thoughts. “Am I relapsing again? What did I do? I must have done something to cause it! What should I do? What if I really am getting sick again?” While my mood tanked, my stomach twisted into aching knots. At the same time that I was recovering from the terrible trauma of that prolonged GI disease, I was also in physical and emotional agony over a lingering case of plantar fasciitis, which made it difficult to enjoy many of the activities I once loved. The onset of the injury occurred during the peak of the colitis, at a time when I was weakened, malnourished, and desperately depressed. When my therapist and I discussed this history, I began to see how my anxiety and perseverations were understandable. It was so obvious when it was all laid out as if we were discussing the life of some stranger. Of course, I would be hyper-vigilant to any cues that might alert me to impending danger from these two conditions which, together, upended my entire existence! With my therapist’s coaching, I practiced responding to my pain and my fear with acceptance, gentleness, and self-compassion. “There’s that pain again,” I acknowledged. “There’s my brain worrying that something is wrong. But nothing is wrong, and I am ok.” As I gently closed my eyes and relaxed the little muscles of my jaw, I repeated to myself, “Deep breath. Ground myself in the breath. Ground myself in anything other than my stomach or my feet.”

Turning to principles of operant conditioning, I trained myself to act opposite my emotions. Rather than modifying my behavior to “protect myself” from further exacerbating the “pain,” I did exactly what I was afraid to do, within what a wise mind might consider moderate and safe. Instead of staying home from a bike ride, I would set out for a gentle cycle around the block, just to stretch my legs and prove to myself that I was capable of spending 10 or 15 minutes on a bicycle without hurting myself or causing some sort of massive GI upheaval. Instead of sitting on the couch and nursing my poor feet, lamenting my “disability,” I would tell myself softly that walking through the grocery store was not enough to trigger any sort of severe injury from which recovery was impossible, and off I went, frequently deep-breathing the whole way along while squinting my eyes tight and forcefully redirecting my attention again and again to anything other than the focus of my worry.

paralyzed
200.365 paralyzed by the same old antics,” © ashley rose (own work), Jan 2010. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

“The best way out is always through.”

~ Robert Frost

During these days of rewiring my mind-body connection, I developed several mantras:  “Just because I feel pain does not mean I am injured. // Sensitivity is not the same as pain. // There is no way that this moderate level of (x,y,z) activity is causing permanent damage. // In the whole long course of my life, this will not last forever! I am ok, and I am going to be ok. // All of this is going to work out. // No matter what happens, God has a plan for my life.” I also expanded the vocabulary that I used to describe my physical sensations. From one word, “pain,” my lexicon multiplied to include pressure, twinge, niggle, rub, ache, sting, tenderness, smarting, soreness, prickle, tingle, pinch, throb, burn, and irritation. Sometimes, there was still no word that fit. “I just feel it. It’s just there,” I would tell myself. Just because I was aware of the presence of my feet, did not mean that there was anything amiss.

“Don’t trouble yourself. God didn’t make us to abandon us.”

~ Michelangelo

So… why am I now reflecting on a desensitization process that I undertook almost two years ago? Well, I still develop physiologic responses to stress, and I still rely on the same tools and skills to redirect the automatic thoughts that alarm my mind with fears that my body isn’t right. With my trip to Paris quickly approaching, I am discovering that there is much more to this jumble than I originally perceived. There are some fearsome monsters still slumbering peacefully in a dark corner of my closet. Until recently, I didn’t even know they were there. Now, they are yawning wide, stretching their claws after their long hibernation, and showing their fangs. They are knocking on the door, and I am timidly letting them into the room.

The truth is, by God’s grace I am blessedly able-bodied, and I always enjoyed a very active lifestyle. I grew up running, jumping, and playing. At parties, I loved to dance! I lived in New York City and Washington, DC and constantly walked everywhere. Until a couple years ago, my job was incredibly active, and I was on my feet for 12 to 16 hours a day. Where did she go, that girl who used to clomp and shuffle and skip and scurry? She never gave her feet much of a thought. “This trip is going to be good for you on many levels,” my therapist predicted during our most recent session. She was referring to the myriad ways I was finding myself hurtled out of my comfort zone. Her underlying assumption seemed to be that I would emerge intact and healthy from my visits with the beasties in the closet. She foresaw us all pleasantly sipping thé and eating gateau at some Parisian sidewalk café in May. I reminded her that there were only four months until my departure – not much time to rehabilitate myself. “And here I was thinking, ‘Wow, we have four whole months! Think of all we can do in that amount of time!’” she replied.

Ironically, it was my mother who offered me the centering words of reassurance that anchored me in acceptance and self-compassion. “If it hurts to walk, just sit down,” she spoke to me over the phone. I was so overwhelmed by how much walking I would have to do after I landed in Paris, that I never stopped to consider I didn’t actually have to do any of it. “There will be so many places to sit! There will be places to sit everywhere! You don’t have to go everywhere and see everything. Just do what you can, and then take a break.” I was a little stunned that these words of balance and wisdom were coming from the same driven woman who instilled my perfectionistic, neurotic restlessness in me. This was the bold, fearless mother whose sense of adventure and curiosity could never be dissuaded until she explored every nook and cranny of every city, street, neighborhood, beach, field, house, museum, shop, or parking lot into which she ever stepped foot. She never saw a “Do Not Enter” sign that applied to her. As I contemplated her message, I remembered that she was also the same one who gently told me, “Let go of your pride,” when I blushed with shame as I maneuvered a motorized scooter through Disney World two years ago. In both instances, she reminded me that it was ok to be flexible, that I was more than I imagined myself to be, and that in the acceptance of reality, there was nothing to fear.

“If we are intended for great ends, we are called to great hazards.”

~ Blessed John Henry Newman

“Do what you can. It’s going to be ok.” Both feet are planted on the sidewalk now. I close the front door behind me, turn the key, and drop the little brass ring into my jacket pocket. Unravelling a set of earbuds, I jam them into my ears, wedging them in extra-securely. I thumb through my music and hit the “shuffle” button on the same playlist that comforted me during those early days of transition after my partial hospitalization discharge. Pat Benatar blasts into my tympanic membranes, reverberating down my auditory canals into my brain, drowning out any other thoughts. Off go my feet – one, two, one, two – and I consciously slow them as I count my inhales and exhales. Clenching my fists and singing softly along with the lyrics, I turn the corner, and I lose sight of the house behind me. “My body can do this! My body wants to do this,” I think. “It is my mind that is weak.” At the end of the next street, I turn back. The loop is about a mile, all-told, and I finish it in about 30 minutes. I am ok. “It’s going to be ok.”

Backpacker in Cairns
Backpacker in Cairns,” © Jo Christian Oterhals (own work), Mar 2010. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

~ J.R.R. Tolkein, The Lord of the Rings

A Pause for Recognition

Featured Image:  “Herbst,” © Sven Wusch (own work), Nov 2010. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

Two wonderful bloggers, Jenny of Peace From Panic and Lisa of From Dream to Plan, nominated me for the Leibster Award. To be entirely honest, Jenny nominated me months ago, back in March, and there are really no excuses for how long it took me to finish answering all of her excellent questions. I am very flattered to be recognized by these two exceptionally special writers. They both share their wholehearted selves through their fabulous and engaging blogs, which I encourage everyone to visit!

The guidelines for the award are pretty straightforward.

  1. Thank the person who nominated you, and tag him or her in your post. (Thank you Jenny and Lisa!)
  2. Answer the 11 questions asked of you.
  3. Nominate 5-11 other bloggers (ideally with 1000 or fewer followers), and inform them of their nominations.
  4. Create 11 new questions for your nominees to answer.

 

Because I was nominated twice, there are twice as many questions to answer, so I will get right to it! To begin, here are the questions that Jenny asked…

  1. Why did you start your blog?

Messages encouraging the use of disordered eating, the promulgation of unrealistic body expectations, and the promotion of unhealthy relationships with food and exercise are the norms in our culture and society. I wanted to offer a different voice and to document my journey through recovery from my eating disorder. You can read about my motivation here.

  1. What book are you reading now and do you recommend it?

I am always reading more than one book at a time. Right now, my three are The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, by Christopher Germer, Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton, and Eating Disorders: A Guide to Medical Care and Complications, by Philip S. Mehler, MD, and Arnold E. Anderson, MD. I would recommend the first two, unequivocally. The third book is one that I am reading for work, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for general reading.

  1. What does your favorite coffee or tea mug look like?

It would be impossible to choose a favorite. Right now, because it is autumn (my favorite season!), I am enjoying my owl-shaped coffee mug tremendously. 😍

  1. Do you prefer modern or traditional art?

Traditional.

  1. Retail shopper or online shopper?

Both. The convenience of online shopping is great, but when it comes to buying clothing, I to be able to touch the fabric and to feel my body in the clothes.

  1. If you could do something really adventurous, and knew you’d be okay, what would it be?

Hang gliding!

  1. What is the kindest compliment anyone can give you?

That I am kind-hearted and loving. That I am living out my values. (But only if it was true and not just flattery!)

  1. Are you athletic? Favorite sport?

Ummm… define “athletic.” I love to bike, swim, and practice yoga, because they are fun and enjoyable activities. They also keep my body healthy and leave me feeling refreshed and alive. For a long time, I was addicted to running. My therapist and psychiatrist are working with me to develop a healthier relationship with running. For several years, I quit it entirely while I allowed my mind and body to heal. A month or two ago, I ran a quarter mile and then worked my way up to a half, but now I am nursing some badly bruised/strained feet. So the running is still TBD.

  1. What is your favorite quote?

See below.

  1. How have other bloggers encouraged you?

The blogging community here at WordPress is such a blessing! The comments that I receive are amazingly supportive. Other bloggers challenge me to think in different ways. I find inspiration, I am reminded of my values, and I am drawn back to what is most important through the comments left on my blog and the posts of other writers. I don’t think its exactly what Dr. Barbara Fredrickson meant when she decribed positivity resonance (I think that requires a face-to-face encounter), but it must come close.

  1. Imagine a peaceful place. What does it look/feel like?

There is a safe place that I go to in my mind when I’m meditating, where I sit beside a gentle brook, under a giant, leafy tree. The sun is shining through the leaves, sending dappled light across the water and the thick, green, grass. Those same leaves ruffle in a gentle breeze, while the brook babbles happily.

owl-mug
Hot chocolate tastes much more delicious when it is sipped out of an owl mug. (October 2016)
Ok, onto Lisa’s questions…

  1. What’s a funny travel story you will never forget? Personally experienced or not.

I honestly can’t think of a single thing! Isn’t that terrible? There are so many amazing memories, but they aren’t necessarily funny. At least, they certainly wouldn’t seem funny to other people. I think most of my travel stories are the, “You really had to be there…” sort. Maybe, in some ways, those are the best kind.

  1. What’s your favorite recipe not from your home country?

Pumpkin soup from Germany! It’s unlike any pumpkin or squash soup I ever tasted in the U.S. I actually don’t know the secret to the recipe, or what makes it so incredible. It is simply delicious! I also love rice pudding, which you can find here in the States, but which always tastes better in Britain. Mmmmm… and croissants. Alas, Americans do not know how to make a good croissant. Or how to brew a good cup of coffee! Now my mouth is watering.

  1. If you could travel to one city or country right now, where would it be?

This question is easy to answer, though the response may not be what my readers would expect. Although my recent writings are all about Paris, the ONE place I want to be more than anywhere else right now is… Germany!!! There is nowhere quite like southern Germany on the edge of the Black Forrest in the fall. Mmmmm… I can taste the pumpkin soup! My heart flutters when I think of the changing trees along all the little hills and valleys. I have this very distinct memory of the landscape emerging from a dawn fog, me staring out the back window of Helene’s little BMW, the road winding along from Stuttgart to Zurich early one morning… It was heaven!

  1. What is your favorite way to travel? (Bike / train / plane / walking, etc.)

YES. (All of the above)

  1. Why did you start writing your blog?

See above!

  1. What movie could you watch over and over again and still love?

The Lord of the Rings (any of the three)

  1. Do you have a favorite quote?

Nope! There are too many good ones to pick just one.

  1. Would you call yourself an indoor person or an outdoor person?

I need a little of both to remain in balance. Without nature, I would suffocate. The beauty of God’s created world puts a song in my heart, inspires gratitude, and centers my soul. Yet, there are times when nothing is as restorative as a cozy afternoon or evening spent indoors.

  1. How do you get motivated to work toward your goal(s)/target(s)/ambition(s)?

That is a really great question, and it is perhaps impossible for me to answer! If I knew exactly how to motivate myself, I might be much farther along this path of life. I think that I have a naturally curious and driven mind, but being so driven can also lead me to quickly become overwhelmed, resentful, and angry. I suppose that I would say the thing that helps most is loads of therapy! There was a time that I was ashamed of my tendency toward distraction, depression, anxiety, my propensity to leave projects half-done, and all my other faults and failures. It took some pretty devastating major life events to turn my way of thinking on its head. I think pursuing a goal starts with embracing my whole self – all of my imperfect parts along with all of my strengths – and readily admitting that I do not possess all the answers that I need. The willingness to turn to others (like my therapist and a few very tried and true confidantes), to be humbly honest with myself, and to adjust my expectations to reflect my reality definitely helps.

  1. If you had to choose one country (aside from your own) to move to permanently, which would you choose?

Probably the UK. Of all my trips abroad, London was my favorite city.

  1. Where is your favorite place to be?

Hmmmm… I don’t know if I have one favorite place. For me, it is less about the physical place than the memories, the experiences, and the people. Love. It all comes back to love.

The fun of the Leibster award is sharing it with others. I am passing along this award to the following nominees. I love to follow their insightful blogs. They each share a unique voice, and I hope that you will check out their sites. Below the list of nominees are my 11 questions to each of them.

 

The Questions:

  1. What is your favorite season?
  2. If you won the lottery and never needed to work again, what would you do with your time? Would you still want to work even if you didn’t have to?
  3. What is your favorite way to pass time or relax on a Saturday afternoon?
  4. Do you have any pets? What kind?
  5. Where is your ideal weekend getaway?
  6. Are you more of a city person, country person, or somewhere in between?
  7. Do you have a favorite television show? What is it?
  8. What was your favorite subject when you were in school?
  9. E-reader or old-fashioned book?
  10. Have you ever taken a road trip? Where did you go? What was it like?
  11. What is one piece of advice or wisdom that you hope your future self never forgets?

 

“An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.”

~ G.K. Chesterton

Liebster Award Large

 

New Blogger Award

Liebster Award LargeSometimes, it’s hard to accept recognition. This is my excuse for taking a month to acknowledge weightywonder‘s thoughtful nomination of my blog for the Leibster Award. What a huge compliment! Thank you, weightywonder!

Apparently, this little award recognizes novice bloggers (that’s definitely me!) with a small following (definitely me, again!).

The rules to this award are as follows:

  • Make a post thanking and linking the person who nominated me and include the Liebster Award sticker in the post. (Thank you, weightywonder!)
  • Nominate 5-10 other bloggers and notify them of this in one of their posts.
  • All nominated bloggers are to have less than 200 followers.
  • Answer the 11 questions posed by your nominator and create 11 different questions for your nominees to answer.  Or, you can repeat the same questions.
  • Copy these rules into your post.

So… onto my responses to the questions that were posed to me!

  1. If you didn’t blog about what you blog about now, what would you blog about? Travel, possibly? I LOVE to travel, especially to Europe.
  2. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? Nothing! Part of my recovery is learning to love myself as I am, practicing RADICAL ACCEPTANCE of my whole self, imperfections and all. I am learning that acceptance and approval are not the same, so that I can love myself as I am while working to become a better person. I would not want to instantaneously change anything about myself and deny myself the benefit of the growing process.
  3. Who is your favorite person to spend a night binge-watching movies/tv with? My amazing sister-in-law. (Love ya, Sis!)
  4. Do you have any pets? Tell us about them. I have one finicky cat named Pangur Ban. His name comes from a poem written in Old Irish by a monk sometime around the 9th century. Interestingly, like me, he is an incredibly picky eater. He loves taking naps in the sun, watching the animals that parade across our back patio, and catnip mice.
  5. What is “your song”? I don’t have one.
  6. What are five words that describe you? Resilient, young, growing, compassionate, introspective. I’ll throw in a sixth word – analytical.
  7. If you were going to dye your hair a crazy color, what color would you choose? My natural hair color is a beautiful auburn. I love it so much that I would never dye it. When it turns gray, I’m not sure if I will allow it to turn naturally or dye it back to my lovely auburn.
  8. What body jewelry/piercings do you have? Just a single piercing in each ear.
  9. If you had to watch one tv show only for the rest of your life, which would you choose? MADAM SECRETARY!!! I hope it never goes off the air!
  10. Socks or slippers? Fleece-lined Birkenstocks. I need the arch support.
  11. Who is your favorite sidekick? Robin.

My nominations for this award are…

  1. The Wellnessworx
  2. The Girl With Scars That Smile
  3. Sunshine In Motion
  4. A Parody of Life
  5. johnthemassie

It’s not that easy thinking up eleven novel questions, but here it goes…

  1. What was the best trip you ever took?
  2. What is your favorite room in your house?
  3. City mouse or country mouse?
  4. Who is your favorite poet?
  5. Do you have a scar with a good story behind it?
  6. If you could have any job/career/profession other than the one you are currently doing, what would it be?
  7. What is your idea of the perfect weekend?
  8. If you were an animal, what would it be?
  9. What is your favorite season?
  10. Car, truck, SUV, motorcycle, bicycle, or other?
  11. Tea or coffee?

Cheers!